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I really don’t do product reviews or endorsements in this space. Back in
another life, when I was the managing editor for Law Office Computing,
that’s more or less all I did. While the technology was occasionally
interesting, the entire process of doing a magazine built around product
reviews left me a bit cold. So when I do decide that a product is worth
writing about for Baseball Prospectus, that’s something you should take
seriously.

Alan Schwarz’s new book, The Numbers Game, is excellent. Schwarz takes a trip through the history of baseball statistics, from the pre-history of the 1850s to the performance analysis being done today. He covers Henry Chadwick
through Nate Silver, stopping along the way at Al Munro Elias, Earnshaw Cook,
and some bearded guy from Kansas. The Numbers Game is comprehensive in
its coverage of the history, and thorough in its descriptions of the work
being done today.

I’m fascinated by beginnings and endings, so the chapters in this book that
detail the earliest days of the game, and how the record-keeping developed,
are page-turners for me. The way in which the decisions to track particular
events in a game reflected the personal beliefs of those doing the collecting
was a new concept for me, as was the descriptions of how people 120 years ago
gobbled up statistics the same way rabid seamheads and fantasy players do
today. There are quotes in the first 30 pages of the book that could easily
have shown up on our pages today. For example:


‘The best player in a nine is he who makes the most good plays in a
match’ [Chadwick] wrote, ‘not the one who commits the fewest errors.’ In other
words Chadwick preferred range–the ability to field more balls overall–to
avoiding the occasional error.

Somewhere, Jose Valentin is smiling.

The first 50 or so pages of this book are filled with this kind of great
information that explains just how record-keeping developed, why a flawed
statistic such as runs batted in became a core element in box scores and,
subsequently, player evaluation, even as people recognized the problems with
it.

Beginnings are a strong point in this book. Schwarz describes how the Elias
Sports Bureau got its start, how the first Baseball Encyclopedia came into existence, and how Bill James found his way into answering questions
about baseball while working as a security guard. Some of these stories have
been told before, but none have been told in one book that ties them all
together. By covering so many different people and telling their stories,
Schwarz has managed to write a book that is both a great read and an important
work of reference, the kind of book you’ll blow through in an afternoon in the
yard and then keep on your shelf next to BP and The Baseball
Encyclopedia
.

No book about baseball statistics can be complete without an examination of
the work being done in the modern era, and how that work is making inroads
into the game’s highest offices. Active sabermetricians such as Keith Woolner,
Clay Davenport, Voros McCracken and Ron Antinoja are all in here, as Schwarz
describes their methods and how they’ve advanced our knowledge of the game.

Given the level of detail in the early part of the book, the chapters that
deal with the modern game feel rushed, but it’s understandable. There’s almost
certainly an entire book just in examining baseball statistics since the
information revolution, and to cover everything in the same level of detail as
you would, say, the development of the box score, would require doubling the
book’s size. Given the mandate of the book, Schwarz does a good job in hitting
the high notes, focusing on the increased emphasis on OBP, the role of
randomness in performance evaluation, and how the availability of
pitch-by-pitch data–and even more granular information–is beginning to have an
impact on both the coverage and the play of baseball.

The Numbers Game is a great baseball book, my favorite since last year’s
Paths to Glory. If you’re the kind of baseball fan who reads
Baseball Prospectus, you absolutely are going to want to read it.